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Well above Water, Not Too Close to the Sun

A musical cleansing ritual was necessary for the Corcoran’s Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium after it had been defiled (aesthetically speaking) last week. This was done so in superb fashion by the final concert in the Corcoran’s Musical Evenings Series, which, ionarts cannot tire of pointing out, consistently offers the highest-quality chamber music season in the by far and away best acoustic of venues around town. The talent and quality of performers simply isn’t matched by anyone else, even considering the occasional lapse into mediocrity.

Last Friday it was for the Dædalus Quartet to show if they were such stuff as dreams are made on: again a very young string quartet who knew how to play everyone’s socks off. Better yet, they got to finish the season off with the third in the Corcoran’s remarkable series of Mozart string quintets courtesy of the ingenious collaborator Roger “Tapping-ex-Takács-one-word.”

Bruegel: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

First things first, though: “Dædalus Quartet” is a curious name for any group that aspires to excellence. ("I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe.") One hopes them to soar… alas, naturally hesitates to wish them a spot in the sun. Coincidentally the group consisting of siblings Min-Young and Kyu-Young Kim (violins), Jessica Thompson (viola), and Raman Ramakrishnan (cello) found an exact medium between excelling but not too much, avoiding Dædalus, Jr.'s fate. They established their great enthusiasm in the Mendelssohn quartet, op. 44, no. 1. Granted, there were a number of infelicities (Min-Young Kim’s first violin) present – and the energy came in bursts rather than one long, sustained thrill, but that quibble can only be made in comparison to the perversely high standards the two preceding young groups – the Jupiter and the Parker Quartets – have set.

Although coming out of the Marlboro Music Festival school of “loud is better,” the Dædalus’s tone was not as brazen as I had feared. (That sound is a very subjective matter; other, very fine-tuned ears very much like the style that has been encouraged there, with its straightforward, big, and bold quality.) Especially cellist Raman Ramakrishnan convinced with a superb soft touch and the ability to let his cello sing on its own, to blend in warmly with the other players when called for.

Mendelssohn is fortunately well taken care of, now, both in repertoire and on disc, and we have been able to extol his string quartets' virtues several times over the last years. There never was a reason for the long neglect of these works (easily the equal of Schubert’s and Dvořák’s as well as – in my opinion – superior to Schumann's and Brahms’s such works) and whether from the op. 44 set or the haunting op. 80, the music is superb and gladly heard.

Following came another goodie and ionarts favorite: Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3. That’s just the way to tickle my fancy: well-played Bartók in concert is consistently one of the most rewarding experiences of a (passive) musical life. Only the speech by Kyu-Young Kim (who took over at first violin for this work) before the Bartók was probably certainly not necessary given the Bartók-hungry, veteran crowd at the Corcoran. Jessica Thompson contributed very nicely to the success that was the Bartók. After vital and splendidly executed performance, there would have been little to do but praise – but it might have been the Dædalus’s misfortune that they played Bartók amid recent memories of some superlative, superior Bartók performances (Shanghai, Takács, Juilliard, Chilingirian) given that the result did not stand out – whereas it might have been the season’s highlight in its own right, someplace else or at a different time.

If someone wanted to claim Mozart’s String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat Major, K. 614, to be the primus inter pares among the string quintets (already among the best chamber works Mozart composed)… well, I wouldn’t argue. What a joy to hear the music right before one’s eyes and ears. Next to Roger Tapping, who swayed with the music all léger, Ms. Thompson seemed a touch stiffer and tense than before, causing her viola to emit some metallic sounds here and there. Still, that didn’t prevent a most amiable realization of the work. Indeed, it was a gentle, pleasing way out into the summer lull – and our little life, is rounded with a sleep. Alas, with the end of the season comes the promise of great things next season. Most intriguingly, the Takács will return to the Corcoran’s series, the Amsterdam Klavier Trio will be closing it. (Speaking of the latter, the AKT will perform Shostakovich and Mendelssohn at the Lyceum in Alexandria on Saturday, May 27th.)